Star Engraving Company Building
3201 Allen Parkway
In 1909 a landscape architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts, was hired by the City of Houston to create a plan for expanding parkland while developing orderly traffic arteries. A component of the plan was to utilize green space along the city’s numerous bayous and to eventually construct scenic parkways along the streams. Although this concept was never adopted as a city-wide planning tool, the City purchased property along Buffalo Bayou and in 1925 construction started on a winding roadway along the bayou that would connect downtown with a new residential community named River Oaks.
Although the parkway was intended to be a scenic one, it soon attracted other uses. To take advantage of this new corridor and to escape the increasing density of the downtown area, businesses sought locations along the scenic route, which was originally named Buffalo Drive and is known today as Allen Parkway. Between 1928 and 1930 three printing plants were built in a cluster at the bend just west of Waugh Drive. Not only did they share a commercial focus, but all were designed in the Spanish-Mediterranean style, which disguised the industrial nature of the building in an attempt to embrace the picturesque nature of the parkway. This stretch of Buffalo Drive became known as the “craft district.” The Star Engraving Company, housed originally in a downtown office building, was incorporated in 1911 to provide design, illustration and engraving services. As high school attendance increased and graduation rituals grew in popularity, Star Engraving developed a specialty market by producing engraved diplomas and commencement announcements, as well as class rings, pins, badges and belt buckles. When the company needed larger quarters, they bought property on Buffalo Drive and hired architect Rezin D. Steele to design a combination office building and manufacturing plant.
Although Steele’s name is not well known among Houston architects, he produced a substantial body of work during his 40+ years of practice. Among his extant buildings are Sidney B. Lanier Middle School, Baptist Temple in the Heights and the Henke Building on Market Square. Steele also designed the first auto-oriented grocery store in Houston for the Henke-Pillot chain in 1923. For Star Engraving, Steele designed a two-story, tile-roofed office building, sparingly decorated with conventional Spanish ornament and craft detail. A one-story, flat-roofed structure was placed at the rear to house the manufacturing plant. While the building was under construction, the company announced that there would be 100 to 150 employees in the factory while the sales staff would number 45. During the Depression years, Star Engraving advertised that it was the “South’s Largest Manufacturer of Class Jewelry, Diplomas and Invitations.” Its trade territory ultimately encompassed 16 states.
Star Engraving remained in the building until 1965 when it relocated to a nearby site. Over the next two decades there were different tenants along with periods of vacancy when various redevelopment plans surfaced but never materialized. Finally, in 1984 it was rehabilitated to serve as a cultural center, providing space for Stages Repertory Theatre and later the Children’s Museum. In 1991 the structure escaped being demolished for an apartment complex. A year later the City of Houston purchased the building to ensure its continued use as a cultural arts center.
Today, in addition to Stages, the Star Engraving Building houses the offices of the Houston Arts Alliance, a non-profit organization that supports and promotes the region’s arts community, in addition to managing the city’s civic art collection. In 1995 the structure was listed in the National Register of Historic Places by virtue of its prominent location along a major divided parkway, its Spanish Mediterranean architectural style, its proximity to a group of similarly designed printing plants, its linkage of business and manufacturing with suburbanization during the 1920s, its association with a regionally important business enterprise and its high degree of external integrity.
It was designated as a City of Houston Protected Landmark in 2010. The other two structures in the “craft district” were the Gulf Publishing Company Building (1927) and the Rein Company Building (1928). Often described as looking like “a Spanish Country Club,” the two-story Gulf Publishing Building was a rambling structure with red tile roof, large round apertures, decorative plaster ornamentation on the white stucco facade, iron balconies and a simulated bell tower. It was designed by Wyatt Hedrick and Richard Gottlieb of the Hedrick and Gottlieb firm. Gulf Publishing Company, with offices in Houston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, became the world’s largest publisher of energy-related materials. Although the Gulf Publishing Building was considered one of the city’s finest examples of the Spanish-Mediterranean style of architecture, it was razed in 2002 to make way for a residential high-rise. The third component of the “craft district,” the Rein Company Building, is extant at 3401 Allen Parkway. It was designed in 1928 by a firm of Cleveland, Ohio, architects that specialized in printing plants.
Like the Star Engraving structure, it was composed of a two-story office and advertising studio wing and a single-story plant wing. Its clock tower loomed as a distinctive landmark along the parkway drive. In 1976 the building was converted into a savings and loan branch office. Known as the Clocktower Building today, it houses offices, including those of a law firm. The north side of Buffalo Bayou was much slower in being developed into a parkway. Its final link into downtown was not completed until the late 1950s when Memorial Drive connected with Texas Avenue. As a result, development was slow to materialize along this parkway and more of the green space was retained.